Playing for Change

 By Minette van der Walt

Grandpa Elliott
Photograph by Leo Reynolds (Flickr)

To be moved by music is a wondrous feeling. Whether you are moved to feel, dance, sing, or play, there is something about music that reverberates through each of us. And even in a world feeling lost and frightened in the face of global changes, music is one thing that can bring us together. Playing for Change: Songs Around the World, produced by American Mark Johnson, might just ignite this emotion.


The Playing for Change: Songs Around the World album is part of a multimedia effort to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music. Using a mobile recording studio, Grammy award winning producer/ sound engineer Johnson and his Timeless Media Group travelled wherever the music took them. This is not a political or spiritual mission, but an artistic one with the goal of helping people see that music can unite us as people regardless of ideology, location, or religion.
Older music fans have always grumbled about new developments in recording technology, and sometimes it’s hard not to agree that they might contain a point, yet it is just as hard not to get excited about some of the incredible things that new technology has made possible.


Stemming from a documentary detailing the travels of Johnson and his crew, this amazing multimedia project took a magnificent 10 years to complete. Building from a love for the sounds of buskers they spent a decade recording more than 100 street musicians and entwining their talents. Most of them were recorded outside, in the streets or in the fields of their home countries, then stitching the performances together carefully to create a sort of all-star collaboration, without the stars.


The project’s first single Stand by Me, began with a Santa Monica street performer named Roger Ridley (now deceased). The crew travelled the world, recording more and more musicians. All of these versions were considered for mixing a pastiche final version. The project’s Stand by Me video has been popular online, with over 25 million hits on YouTube.


The music included on the soundtrack is generally the more developed artists with fuller sounds and harmonies, rather than the stereotypical solo banjo player. The recording quality is exceptional for outdoor recordings in a boisterous environment. There’s roots rock, gutbucket blues, rock, R&B, bluegrass, and more here. Worth a listen more for the music than the novelty, but if it’s the novelty that gets you in the door, be sure to listen for the music once you’re in.


Amongst others they found musicians from the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Venezuela, France, Brazil, the USA, Congo, South Africa, Italy, India and Israel, and recorded them live using their mobile equipment. In the same breath is the impressive variety of music instruments used to create these unique and thrilling sounds. The instruments includes; drums, a cello, sitar, banjo, washboard, flute, tavil drums, a veena, pandeiro, didgeridoo, bouzouki, acoustic guitar, alton sax, violin, congas, shaker, guiro, electric guitar, harmonica and last but not least the triangle played skilfully by  Django “Bambolino” Degen.


The overall quality of the musicians represented here, is breathtaking.  Each of the artists who performed added a piece of their energetic spirit to the songs. From Santa Monica street performer Roger Ridley to Israeli singer Tula, from Congolese drummer Junior Kissanrigwa to Grandpa Elliott singing and playing his harmonica in New Orleans, almost no one artist stands out from the pack. In fact, if there’s a real star here, it’s Johnson, who took recordings and made them sound like the work of a band playing in the same living room.


The CD contains ten tracks (first released in 2009) which is majorly iconic covers’ songs that were most likely selected in order to establish a familiar ground between the far-flung performers. This works well within the context of the album’s stated goal.  In Johnson’s words this goal is ‘to find a way to inspire the world to come together. To stop the hate. To see the commonality we share’. These are elevated ideals and they’ve been promoted by so many charity projects that it’s easy to write them off as airy-fairy nonsense whenever we hear them, but Playing for Change surely make them seem within reach. Hearing performers collaborate from across the globe on the classic Ben E King Stand by Me, Bob Marley’s One Love, Peter Gabriel’s Biko, Tracy Chapman’s Talking bout a Revolution, U2/ Bob Dylan’s Love Rescue Me and the Hindi song Chanda Mama, is nothing short of profoundly, deeply moving.
Track number five on the album titled Don’t worry, was written by French Pierre Minetti especially for the project and for this he deserves much credit. Israeli singer Tula and Indian veena player Rajhesh Vaidhya make attention-grabbing contributions to this track. 


Playing for Change’s power is highlighted by the included DVD, which intercuts footage of the musicians as they perform a selection of tracks from the album. Not taking away the value of the music, but the actual video footage might be the highlight of the entire project. Each of these videos is a work of art that faithfully weaves the lives, passions and music of the artists into a tapestry of sight and sound. Irish singer Bono, collaborates on War / No More Trouble and the American singer Keb’ Mo’ on Marley’s One Love, it is noticeable how these internationally acclaimed musicians are portrayed exactly in the same way as any of the other street buskers. The DVD also contains a three-minute trailer of the documentary film Peace Through Music.


Even in the midst of poverty, war, or famine, the Playing for Change Foundation aims to share more than the music of the many musicians they have met during the course of their travels. They are building music schools so that these gifted artists can pass along their skills and passion to the next generation so this precious resource is not lost.


Pedantry aside, Playing for Change really is one of the most moving, most entertaining compilations you are going to find, and Mark Johnson deserves to be highly praised for his efforts no matter how many times it is re-issued. If you missed this the first time, don’t repeat your mistake. We’ve already seen a number of charity compilations this year, and we’ll surely see plenty more, but if you’re only going to buy one (whether for musical or philanthropic reasons) make it Playing for Change.


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